Gordon Monson: Piped-in crowd noise, fake fans for football and basketball games on TV? Don’t make me laugh.
A woman holds her smartphone in front of the spectators' seats which are covered with pictures of fans, before the start of a baseball game between Hanwha Eagles and SK Wyverns in Incheon, South Korea, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Cheerleaders danced beneath rows of empty seats and umpires wore protective masks as a new baseball season began in South Korea. After a weeks-long delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, a hushed atmosphere allowed for sounds like the ball hitting the catcher's mitt and bats smacking the ball for a single or double to echo around the stadium. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
I never did like laugh tracks — from the time of “Gilligan’s Island” straight through to “Friends” — imbedded into TV sitcoms meant to sweeten the comedy and prompt laughter from whoever was watching, whether that scattered audience thought the jokes were funny or stupid.
A whole lot of Americans don’t like to be told when to laugh.
Now, according to Joe Buck, Fox is planning not only to pump crowd noise into NFL broadcasts for games with empty stadiums, it’s aiming to digitize fans in the stands, too.
Think about it and think about the sports fans you know. Do they seem like the kinds of people who need to be reminded what’s exciting and what isn’t? What stirs them to cheer and what doesn’t? What moves them to jump off the sofa while pumping their fists and what causes them to sit on down with a ham sandwich in one hand and a cold beverage in the other?
Moreover, if viewers at home know the crowd noise is fake and the crowd itself is fake, will that enhance the viewing experience?
The answers are no, no, no, and hell, no.
We get it. Canned laughter was utilized in TV comedy shows early on and long thereafter to augment and replace live audiences, to create live-audience reaction that went missing in studios from earlier forms of entertainment that had spectators in the seats. In some cases, it was meant to bolster and control and synchronize reaction from smaller in-studio gatherings. It was also used in formative radio shows, permitting and encouraging audiences to go ahead and chuckle, to bring the live experience home.
A lot of people hated the idea, and some liked it.
A sound engineer by the name of Charley Douglass invented something known as the Laff Box, a contraption that used recordings of 300-plus laugh responses on many shows, beginning in the 1950s.
Studies have been done by smart people at institutions of higher learning to discover whether laugh tracks actually make the presented material funny or funnier, and the findings are mixed. Either way, those tracks have become less frequent in recent times, become antiquated, become parodies of themselves, although they persist on some sitcoms.
Inside the realm of sports, while the idea of dealing with empty stadiums is foreign to most — unless you’re an L.A. Chargers fan or have attended the Pac-12 football championship game — the notion that piped-in crowd noise will enhance more than it detracts or distracts is faulty.
Granted, a game with no fans in the seats, if that, in fact, is what it comes to, will be a little weird. Same thing with the NBA and NHL, if those seasons are to resume, and MLB, if that season gets started. It will take some getting used to. But at least the action on the field, on the court, on the ice, on the diamond, will be real. And that’s what matters most. That’s what differentiates live sports entertainment from a scripted television show. Nobody’s certain how it’s all going to turn out.
It happens right in front of everyone on the screen, and everybody knows that nobody knows what’s coming next, not even a small group of writers holed up somewhere or producers who have been clued in or actors who brought to life the script, the story.
And that’s enough for sports fans, what happens between the lines.
They can react as they will without any prompts and without digitized window dressing. Charley Douglass’ box needs no transformation now from laughs into cheers or boos, roars or raspberries.
Empty seats or no, sports fans watching from afar can provide enough of that and more from the comfort of their TV dens, guided by their own reactions, which are as real as the action they love and crave.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.